Around 5pm on Monday, a white-coloured Bolero was seen arriving in front of the office of Patrika newspaper in Dantewada in the South Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. Without any notice or warning, journalist Prabhat Singh was picked up by policemen in plainclothes. Until 2 pm on Tuesday, there was no news of his arrest.

“He is technically missing now as no one knows about his whereabouts,” said Isha Khandelwal, a lawyer with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, a collective of human rights lawyers working in the state.

Singh reports for Patrika, a Hindi daily owned by the Rajasthan Patrika Group. Two months ago, he had also begun to work for the news channel ETV. It is common for journalists in the region to work as stringers for more than one media outlet.

On March 19, ETV sent him a termination letter. No reasons were offered in the termination letter. Two days later, the police detained him.

Goraknath Baghel, additional superintendent of police in Dantewada, said he did not know anything about the case. He hinted that Bastar Police might have picked up Singh. Bastar Police has not responded to phone calls. ETV editors were unavailable for comment.

Samajik Ekta Manch

Journalists who know Singh believe his work has made him a target of the police and its supporters. In the past three months, Singh has written about the attack on social activist Soni Sori and the subsequent harassment of her family members. He has also reported on several alleged fake encounters in the region.

“Prabhat was one of the few people who ensured balanced reportage from Bastar,” said a journalist who did not want to be named for the fear of being targeted by the authorities. “His reports were critical of the high-handedness of the police and the suffocating environment created in the region for journalists,” the journalist added.

On March 1, Singh had sent a written complaint to Dantewada police against the members of a vigilante group Samajik Ekta Manch. In the letter, Singh said Mahesh Rao, Subba Rao and Farooq Ali of the Samajik Ekta Manch had called him “anti-national” on a group chat on the messaging service WhatsApp, defaming him among the journalist community in Bastar. Singh’s complaint was accepted by the police on March 6.

Journalists in Dantewada confirmed that Singh had a war of words with the members of Samajik Ekta Manch on Whatsapp. The police has hinted that Singh could have been picked up under the Information Technology Act.

Samajik Ekta Manch was the same vigilante group that had protested outside the house of contributor Malini Subramaniam in Jagdalpur. Hours later, stones were hurled at the house. Subramaniam left the town, in the face of relentless intimidation. As Caravan magazine reported, Samajik Ekta Manch has close ties with Bastar police.

Press Freedom

Journalists in the state have been seeking a law that will ensure their independence and security while reporting from Maoist conflict-affected region of Bastar. Singh had played a vital role in organising protests and discussions for the drafting and implementation of such a law.

Three large protests have been organised by journalists in Chhattisgarh, calling for the release of two journalists Somaru Nag and Santosh Yadav. Nag was arrested in July 2015, and Yadav was arrested two months later. Since Nag and Yadav were stringers for several publications and Nag had other businesses, the police had questioned if they were journalists at all. But Singh has been a full-time journalist for well-known media outlets.

According to several reports, at a press conference in Raipur on February 20, the inspector general of police in Bastar, Shiv Ram Prasad Kalluri, was quoted as saying: “We don’t care about the national media. You have a different way of looking at things. We work with the media in Bastar, that sits with us, eats with us, and comes in helicopters with us.”

“Singh was anything but that,” said a journalist in Bastar. “He maintained his distance from the authorities so he could be objective while reporting on them.”